Monday, January 21, 2013

Lance Armstrong

Why should you be interested in Lance Armstrong’s confession?

There are several reasons. First he is an atheist, and if you are reading my blog you have at least a passing interest in atheists. Second, he hints at a moral relativism in his confession; a relativism that mimics the tenuous moral grounding that many religious people accuse all atheists of. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this event has at least a passing relationship to bicycling, and anything related to bicycling is worthy of interest.

Lance may not strike many folks as displaying the pure image of a committed atheist. Most atheists do not wear a crucifix around their neck on a thin gold chain. He often courted a agnostic tone when he answered questions about spirituality, and he continues to drop the occasional “thank God” as an offhand exclamation.

"Everyone should believe in something, and I believed in surgery, chemotherapy and my doctors." – Lance Armstrong

Yet he is as much an atheist as anyone who has discarded the mystical bronze age religions, but has not taken the next step towards naming that action atheism. Many modern atheists might be agnostic when they are forced to talk about religion, and cap that off by avoiding ever talking about it. It is only the likes of two-bit bloggers and other blowhards that need a name for something that is just not being something else.

So Lance was an atheist. He made it onto lists of celebrity atheists.

His celebrity was built of lovingly crafted obsession. He weighed each ounce of food; he calculated the number of steps of wasted effort each minute off the bike would cost him. He has now confirmed that he measured out calculated doses of performance-enhancing drugs, and bullied teammates into taking them as well. All this he did so he could pedal a bicycle past the point of simple pain, past the point where the mind screams to stop pedaling, past the point of human physical ability.

A bicycle race has a simple measure of success. One must simply cross the finish line before one’s opponents. The prize is relative, and the podium celebrates the fist, second, and third-place finishers, not some objective time or speed. So the faster one’s opponents go then just that much faster the winner must go.

This is a natural medium for propagating moral relativism.

We are constantly told that moral relativism is that slipperiest of slopes: “If that can be justified by taking advantage of a morally ambiguous situation, then why not murder or worse? “ I know of no self-identified atheist who has not been told that no god means no objective morality, and that that slide down the slippery slope of moral relativism would leave them committing horrible acts of criminal depravity.

Lance suggests that everyone was doing it, but just what does that mean? Everyone on his team? Everyone he knew?

Shortly after Lance left the Oprah interview taping the international Olympic committee stripped him of the bronze medal he won in Sydney’s 2000 Olympic individual men’s time trial. In 2000 he stood on the lowest step of the Olympic podium clutching his bronze and smiling at his accomplishment. Jan Ulrich stood slightly higher than lance with the silver medal around his neck; just three days before he had won the gold in the Men’s road race. In February of 2012 the Court of Arbitration for Sport found Jan guilty of systematic doping as a result of a 2006 investigation. Jan has publicly stated he will not confess to millions the way Lance did.

Atop the 2000 Men’s time trial podium was Viatcheslav “Eki” Ekimov. Eki was a member of the US Postal team whose members Lance famously bullied into doping, and Lance surely knew if Eki was doping in 2000.

Abraham Olano came in fourth at the 2000 Men’s Olympic time trial, and may be given the bronze now that lance has been stripped of it. Olano was racing for the ONCE team in 2000, as was Laurent Jalabert who came in fifth. ONCE was a team run by Manolo Saiz. Saiz pulled his ONCE team, and Jalabert cajoled other Spanish teams to pull out, of the 1998 Tour de France. The pull out was a protest against an investigation into doping allegations that had caught several members of the Festina team.

When ONCE left as a sponsor Saiz kept his team together under the name of their new sponsor: “Liberty Seguros”. That sponsor would leave the team after Saiz was arrested in 2006 in connection to an investigation into systematic blood doping.

The “Liberty Seguros” team became “Astana” after their star rider - Alexander “Vino” Vinokourov – convinced Kazacstan to sponsor the team. Astana is the name of Kazacstan’s capital city. However, so many of Astana’s riders were under investigation for blood doping that there was not enough of a team for Vino to race in the 2006 tour de france, and what was left of the team was forced to pull out. In 2007 Vino himself would be caught blood doping, and in 2009 Lance would return to cycling riding for the Astana team.

I have seen charts detailing how deep into the Tour de France finishers one must dig to find a rider not intimately associated with doping. Often one is pulling up 10th-place finishers who appear clean because no-body really thought about them much at the time.

One can easily dismiss the intricate web of doping deception that is professional bike racing as pathetic. The entire sport of cycling is worth about as much as one team in the NFL. Most cyclists make less than an apprentice tradesman.  The waterboys of American football probably make more than the bicycle racers who will push themselves inhumanly for the chance to limp across the finish line close to last place.

Not that the NFL has used their tremendous earnings to keep themselves clean. We demand performances that are superhuman, and we’ve got to make superhumans to get it. The NFL refuses to provide blood samples for its players so many of the good drugs cannot be detected. What would happen to the 2013 Super Bowl if fans successfully demanded a full and complete investigation into the potential pharmaceutical augmentation of the players?

So lance played the game he was competing in, and got caught. Would he have gotten caught if he had not played it so well, or would anyone have cared if he got caught? I don’t think so.

Cycling is steeped in religious tradition. One of the greatest stage races –the Giro d’Italia- often starts with a blessing from the Pope himself. There may be other atheists in the peleton, but not many.

If Lance's atheism informed his doping it might have only been to clarify his obsession with dialing in dosages and regiments to just the right level. It may have helped him use this illegal tool to successfully win races, and not get caught, at least till now.

The biggest problem with Lance’s doping is the obnoxious way in which he protected his lie by attacking people. Here is a guy who sued people who he knew were telling the truth about him just to shut them up. He called people all sorts of names hoping that the words of a celebrity athlete would hurt them enough to blunt their stories. In short he was an a***le.

Luckily (?!) jerkiness is a universal component of the human condition. Only the immensely narcissistic would suggest that they themselves did not have the capability for jerkiness, and anyone over the age of 20 can look back and identify events in their personal history where they played the role of jerk. Not everyone has the resources to magnify this shortcoming into a force that can injure other people’s lives like Lance did, but the potential can be seen.

Most of us also lack the resources needed to act the part of superhuman motivator to people whose lives have been injured by cancer. Lance did real measurable good. Most cycling team buses at the Tour de France might attract a spattering of fans intent on grabbing an autograph. The Discovery team bus was often caught in a swarm of Lance Armstrong fans; people suffering or loving someone suffering with cancer. They would travel hundreds of miles just to be near to the air Lance was breathing, like pilgrims seeking a cure from some magic fountain or relic.

At a time when people refusing cancer treatment is a significant cause for poor treatment outcome the presence of a motivator demonstrating the effectiveness of treatment is very important.

So Lance was doping, and you should find it interesting in some compellingly ambiguous way.


Beenthere Donethat said...

Here's a comment that Lance made that pretty much shows the irony of an atheist saying that being a "good person" is good enough. The guy turned out to be the biggest liar, the biggest fraud the sports world has ever seen! And not only that, he was hateful and wicked to anyone that would even accuse him of any impropriety! In the end he was a cheat, a liar, and a thief, and by his own definition, anything but a "good person".

"Quite simply, I believed I had a responsiblity to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking, and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn't a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whther I believed in a certain book, or whether I'd been baptized."

adult onset atheist said...

I think that irony may not be the word you are looking for, and I'm not sure I follow your logic in ascribing a direct relationship between a single sports figure and all atheists. It is important to sketch the relationship that you want to make. Are you saying that his atheism was needed for him to be a jerk to people? Are you saying that being an atheist makes one a jerk, and that Armstrong's getting caught lying was another step towards showing all atheists are jerks? I would rather engage your comment than dismiss it as undeveloped. Can you clarify what you mean, or does it look icky and wrong when you make it clear enough to understand?